Truth About Glass Recycling

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Before you deposit the next beer or wine bottle into your blue bin, here are a few things to know about recycling your favorite sand-based product:

  1. It has the quickest turnaround of any curbside product, back on store shelves in as little as 30 days
  2. There’s a strong market for recycled glass, and the demand is not currently met
  3. A good portion of glass that you place in your recycling bin is not actually recycled

What is Downcycling?

According to O-I Global, the leading glass manufacturer in North America, about 1.6 million tons of glass are downcycled, translating to almost 40 percent of the 4.2 million tons collected annually for recycling. Furthermore, this 4.2 million tons represents only 25 percent of total glass manufactured, as shown in the chart below.

Let’s start by explaining what happens to all this glass that isn’t reprocessed into new containers. To do this, we need to understand the concept of downcycling.

Downcycling is the process by which materials are recycled into a product of lesser-quality. An example for glass containers would be fiberglass or using it as an additive in concrete or ceramic tiles. The decision to downcycle glass is usually based on the quality of material, but who makes that call?

“This is most often the decision of the Material Recovery Facility (MRF),” says Paul Smith, O-I’s Global Sourcing Manager of Cullet. “Aggregate use of glass is important but limited in application. The recycling rate through MRFs could improve.”

One of the issues is the popularity of single-stream recycling, where all materials are collected in one bin. The materials are then separated at the MRF using a system of magnets, eddy currents and other machines, with glass being separated based on its weight.

During this process, glass tends to be crushed, which lowers the quality and increases the chances it will be downcycled. Smith says crushing can be a negative because large sizes are preferred when it comes to reprocessing glass into new containers.

O-I Cullet Recycling

Incentivizing Participation

One way to offset the loss of glass product from downcycling is for consumers to recycle more glass in the first place. When referring to municipal solid waste, the EPA reported a 28 percent glass recycling rate in 2007. This would rank glass containers below steel cans (64 percent), paper (55 percent), aluminum cans (49 percent) and plastic soft drink bottles (36.6 percent) when it comes to container recycling.

Every ton of glass that is recycled results in one ton of raw materials saved to process new glass, including: 1,300 pounds of sand, 410 pounds of soda ash and 380 pounds of limestone. Photo: Nowpublic.net
Every ton of glass that is recycled results in one ton of raw materials saved to process new glass, including: 1,300 pounds of sand, 410 pounds of soda ash and 380 pounds of limestone. Photo: Nowpublic.net

But in California, nearly 71 percent of glass was recycled in 2007, with an increase to 80 percent last year. The Glass Packaging Institute attributes much of the difference to the fact that California has a bottle deposit law.

“The greatest participation of glass recycling tends to come from deposit programs,” adds Smith in reference to the 11 states that incentivize recycling beverage containers. “There are several tiers of glass recycling, but this is the highest quality.”

In addition to the financial incentive for consumers to recycle containers in these states, part of the deposit goes to funding collection facilities. This means better access to recycling drop-offs for glass in these states.

Spread the Word

While it’s possible to manufacture glass containers with over 90 percent recycled content, the lack of supply makes this difficult.

“Sometimes there is a perception that there’s no market for recycled glass, and that’s not the case,” says Smith. “We need to create awareness of this, and consumers can do their part by finding out what is happening with recyclables.”

It’s also import to know what glass is accepted. Putting in a color of glass that is not accepted by your program, or treated glass, such as windows and mirrors, leads to contamination issues that reduces the value of your entire batch.

For its part, O-I is becoming aggressive in developing new technologies and pursuing contracts that will increase glass collection. The company has been able to increase its glass recycling rate by almost 7 percent in the past three years.

  • http://www.mxiinc.com Scott Cottrill

    I am the manager of a MRF that is trying to recycle glass that we get in. However, the nearest facility that O.I. operates that can take our glass is over 200 miles away. With the rate they are willing to give us, it costs more in transportation to send it there than I can recover in recycling fees. Unfortuantely, most of our glass ends up in the landfill. We need more facilities close to generation sources to make it more cost effective.

  • http://www.southeastgreen.com Beth Bond

    I just attended the Georgia Municipal Assocaition Conference this weekend. Tybee Island one of our coastal cities is in the process of buying a crusher to create free glass gravel. The Council Person stated that there is no market because of the weight cost of transporting the glass. For Cities trying to do single stream recycling I would rather see single stream and it being downcycled then abandoned as they have in many communities. It makes sense to incentivize where there is political will but for those of us struggling with political will I think any form of recycling is better than none. I would like to know where the closest facilities for O-I are for us here in Georgia or any other glass bottle recycling center in our state. Can you provide that information please?

  • Pat B

    Another way to recycle old glass bottles is to find someone in your community who brews their own beer. Brewers reuse pry-off glass bottles or bottles with Grolsch style lids to store their latest brew. If you find a brewer in your neck of the woods, he or she will more than likely take any of these bottles off your hands. An added benefit it you might get some delicious homebrew when the next batch is complete.

  • Bob Pinder

    We too, a small MRF in Michigan, are trying to recycle our glass. We have lots of supply along with most of our cohorts in Michigan. There is no demand here, at least in terms of pricing to meet our costs of shipping. We’re paying to downcycle our glass into aggregate. Where are those markets and unmet demand? Not in our backyard.

  • nnancy

    I live in a very small town in northwest Wyoming, where there is no recycling and no one wants to be bothered with it. So, I have to use my ingenuity and take it out of town whenever I go. This means having some storage space and room in my car. But, it’s ok. I go to visit my grandchildren about every 6 weeks and go with a car full of recycling to contribute to the big bins in their city. Don’t know if that city appreciates it, but no one complains so far. Sure wish there was a way to convince people here to recycle, but they don’t even want to be bothered with a liner for the new landfill! Anyways, it is somewhat of a nuisance to take all my recyclables, plus stuff for Goodwill, when traveling, but, where there is a will, there is a way. My neighbor is a dumpster diver and it is amazing what small town people throw out.

  • http://hawaii.edu Andrew Carson

    In Hawaii all our recycled items must be transported off-island for re-processing, adding to the carbon footprint and life-cycle cost of the item. Energy costs are very high in the islands making re-processing unprofitable locally. We have experimented with some downcycling, but thus far not very successfully. I don’t like the idea of putting glass into the landfill, but transporting it thousands of mile doesn’t make much sense either. In the landfill it is a relatively inert substance that could be recovered if that ever becomes economically feasible. Aloha

  • http://www.cityofmadison.com/streets George Dreckmann

    Glass is a problem for recycling programs because #1 it breaks, #2 it is heavy, and #3 it has little value because it is made from sand and soda ash. We are committed to recycling glass because our customers expect us to, and it is highly recyclable. We have access to markets in our area, but it still costs us over $80 per ton to get glass sorted, processed and shipped to markets.

    Recycling is about more than the bottom line, but glass is a big drain on our budget. The industry has high quality standards, there is nothing wrong with that, but it can be hard to meet them in any commingled program, not just single stream programs. That means you do end up downcycling lots of glass. But, downcycled glass is still good for the environment. You save raw materials (sand and gravel) and the energy expended to mine them. You also can get projects that use glass, such as road projects, that you can show to your customer as one of the benefits of their recycling efforts.

    Regarding bottle bills, they certainly work great. But, in states like Wisconsin where we have great recycling programs already in place, they are a very tough sell. Environmentalists only have so much political capuital to use and time to invest in getting this done at the state capitol so right now a state bottle bill is a low priority for me.

  • http://www.elpasorecyclesglass.com Donna Martinez

    Hello everyone, I am sorry to hear that all of you are having so many difficulties with recycling of glass.
    I am in the process of creating a Glass Recycling/Manufacturing fcility in El Paso, TX of which most of the glass will be re-produced in a variety of different items to re-sell back to the community. Please take a look at my website and be active with your local city and state, maybe if they see all the different things that can be created with glass someone might also want to create a glass recycling facility.

    If they don’t, then they are missing out on the beauty and possibilities.

  • Steve

    Would any of you pay $8 less for a case of beer, or perhaps your favorite bottled soda. If we lived in Mexico this would be the case. In Mexico rather than being wasteful and using more energy and creating more greenhouse gases with production and reproduction, the glass is simply collected when you purchase another case, then cleaned and sterilized and then a new beverage is placed in the bottle and resealed. This is about as efficient as the process gets and instead of the .05 cent deposit you get in California you would simply pay $8 less for a 20 pack of beer. Are we as Americans really that rich or would you choose to bring your bottles back if there was $8 bucks a case in it for you.

  • Laura

    Reading Steve’s post reminds me of growing up back in Ohio when we would go to a soda-pop bottling company to make our purchases and bring back with us the cases of empty glass bottles that would be sterilized and re-used again and again and again. Why aren’t bottling companies doing this any longer? I can also remember my parents returning glass bottles to the local grocery store. We put them into a bin and I can remember watching them go along a belt into a wash room where they were cleaned before sterilizing for re-use. It seems as if America has gone backwards? If we did things more environmentally back in the late 70s why can’t we do it like that again today? Cost savings per case of soda/beer aside – it just makes more sense to bring those bottles back!

  • http://www.yanzum.com Doug

    I agree with Laura. We should go back to the return bottle system. When I was a kid, that’s how we made extra money, by collecting bottles and selling them back to the store at a few cents each. Consumers paid a bottle deposit on each full bottle of soda and it was paid back when we returned the bottles. Many lazy people, just like today, threw them away, so we collected the cast offs and returned them for pocket money. I think Coke and Pepsi realized they could maximize profits by putting their products in cheap light weight aluminum cans and plastic bottles. This eliminated their cost of processing all those heavier returned glass bottles. It was a great system that worked well, but was abandoned in favor of more profits.

  • http://www.yanzum.com Doug

    I really like Nancy’s attitude. Recycling isn’t offered, so she takes it where it is offered. I did the same for years in Atlanta before the city started curbside recycling. It was no big deal, just part of my routine. I think if we buy something, then we must be responsible for finding a way to recycle the packaging, whatever it is. If we don’t, then we’re just passing the problem along to future generations. The problem with too many of us Americans is we’ve had too much excess for too long and now we’re fat, spoiled and apathetic.

    I used to have a business in Atlanta. There was a room with several soft drink machines, but no recycling bin. I asked the building manager about it but she said there was no place to put it, so I made one out of a cardboard box with a hole on top and a garbage liner. I sat it in the hall by the rear door that led to the drink room. I collected the cans and took them home to recycle even though I don’t drink sodas myself. I was completely mystified to constantly find empty cans and bottles in the garbage can that sat right beside my recyle bin. It was well marked but people couldn’t even get that right even though I did most of the work for them. I suppose many people won’t get it until we have another crisis.

  • Eddie

    Is there a profit to be made in recycling glass or pallets for that matter any material. This is the way the public thinks more profit more recycling. I live in Midland,Tx. and all we have is places for metals.

  • Charlene

    Have any of you heard of “VETRAZZO” ?? it is a product used for kitchen and bathroom counter tops. Check out ‘vetrazzo.com’. They use small peices of glass in concrete to create a beautiful product. There are several choices, clear glass imbedded in concrete made from clear bottle glass, green and brown in concrete fron brown and green bottles, blue from b lue bottles, etc. The glass can also be used as a binder in the concrete. This seems to me to be another alternative for glass recycling. (I do Stained Glass and have an island top made from my “recycled’ glass’ )

  • http://www.surehandsusa.com AparfAwambTar

    What more can i say
    Before anything i’d like to say i reside in New York
    Should i get my stamped concrete or Decorative concrete.

    Any insight is apperciated

  • http://www.ameribev.org American Beverage Association

    Thanks for bringing attention to the important topic of recycling glass – a great recyclable resource with many uses.

    One thing to note, however, is that rather than adding additional costs to beverages by enacting a bottle bill, we should focus on comprehensive recycling that addresses all recyclables. Strong curbside programs can be of far more value to residents – and the environment – than any bottle bill.

    Importantly, beverage containers are 100 percent recyclable. If we can recycle all recyclable items like newspaper, cardboard, laundry detergent containers, shampoo bottles, just to name a few, then we will be able to make a real difference.

    And by doing this with curbside drops we make it more convenient for people to recycle and reuse more of the materials in our everyday lives. By working together to recycle all that we can, we can make a brighter tomorrow for our families and a greener tomorrow for our planet.

    The true value of recycling is in helping the environment, and again, we thank you for bringing attention to this important subject. For more information on recycling, please visit http://www.ameribev.org/minisites/recycling.

    -American Beverage Association

  • Chris

    @Scott Cottrill: I think it should be illegal for MRFs to send a recyclable to a landfill because it would be too expensive to transport it. Consumers (who are paying for recycling through taxes or monthly fees) expect that the service they are paying for will properly dispose of the materials. This sounds like the scandal with e-cycling, where e-waste was sent to dumps in China instead of being properly recycled.

    I think we should push for a law forbidding landfilling at an MRF for reasons like “the closest glass recycler is too far away”

  • Chris

    Are the lids from glass jars recyclable?

  • tom

    Why would you force recycling of glass in a community if it increases the carbon footprint of the recycled end product by high transportation costs? Glass is made of sand, sand rocks, the earth..a rock. Why move glass (sand) from Montana to Denver? they have thier own sand.

  • Sue

    Hello Trey,

    Great article! I do recycle glass in two different ways. Bottles that carry a deposit, like beer bottles, can be recycled in the machines. These glass bottles do get crushed as the machine accepts them. However, any other glass jars & other types of bottles get recycled at curbside pickup.

    I always pickup new information by reading your articles.

    Keep them coming! Thanks.

  • nancy quijano

    So which one is better, plastic or glass bottle? I’m trying to do my part in this but it’s very confusing when it comes to this topic.

  • Sheldon Holub

    I would like to get my community started in glass recylcing. The nearest location to take it is in Houston Texas 75 miles from me. We need more drop off locations.

  • Suzanne

    I don’t understand why the United States does not institute a recycling program like they have in Germany. Germany recycles EVERYTHING! Americans have HUGE trash bins that are dumped once and sometimes even twice a week. Germans have trash cans that are–no kidding–ten times smaller and only dumped every other week. While living in Germany we had to learn how to recycle and what could not be recycled and therefore went into the trash. Germany recycles ALL plastic, ALL glass (containers for green, brown, and clear are in each village), ALL paper, green food scraps (basically, no meat or dairy), and ALL metal. We obtained recycle containers from the trash company for everything but metals and plastics. The metals and plastics were placed in plastic bags which were made from recycled plastic. Glass drinking bottles had a deposit on them and were returned to the local stores. Many things such as beer and sodas were sold by the case in plastic crates that also had a deposit on them. Having the deposit really helps reduce the amount of glass going to the landfill due to laziness. We have been back in the States for almost three years now and it still drives me nuts not being able to recycle to the extent that we did while living in Germany. Americans are generally lazy and very much behind the times when it comes to recycling!

  • Suzanne

    Oh, and Germany has “Trash Cops” that go around inspecting garbage. If you have something in your trash that should be in the recyclables, you get a ticket!